Israeli-Palestinian talks remain elusive
By Amotz Asa-El
An uneasy silence has descended on Palestinian-Israeli relations. What began with a new American administration’s energetic initiative, and then produced some improbable concessions on the part of a new Israeli leadership, has since petered out in the face of Palestinian paralysis.
President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last year about the problems of the Middle East seemed to indirectly blame the lack of diplomatic momentum on Israeli inflexibility. But then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised most observers by publicly abandoning his erstwhile opposition to Palestinian statehood. Following that, he went even further and announced a ten-month freeze of all new housing construction in the West Bank, except east Jerusalem.
However, as of January, neither move has impressed Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and negotiations between the two sides had yet to commence. US mediator George Mitchell had come and gone several times, but still seemed at a loss to repeat in the Middle East the success for which he earned fame as a mediator in Ireland. His stated request, that the sides be given two years to complete a deal, is being universally dismissed as unrealistic, and according to Israeli’s Ambassador to Washington and noted historian Michael Oren, it might even be harmful.
But for now, never mind when the talks will end, no one seems able to get them started.
A visit in early January by Netanyahu to Cairo, where he held high-profile talks with President Hosni Mubarak, was widely expected to be followed by an Egyptian announcement about the renewal of Israel-Palestinian talks, which were held regularly under the previous Israeli government. Instead, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit conceded that the widely anticipated Mubarak-Netanyahu-Abbas meeting will not be held. At the same time, Gheit added that, as far as he was concerned, Netanyahu’s attitude reflected a genuine change from the past as well as “openness and goodwill.”
What, then, is going on? It seems that the Palestinians are for now in no position to deliver what an agreement will require, namely a full and unequivocal end to all demands from the Jewish state.
Gheit was so pleased with Israel that he told a meeting of Arab and European foreign ministers that Netanyahu had told Mubarak he was prepared to discuss “Arab Jerusalem” as the prospective Palestinian capital. Netanyahu’s office quickly denied the report, but the Egyptian mediators seemed, if anything, more concerned with their own Palestinian doorstep. There, on the southern flank of the Gaza Strip, Cairo’s construction of a deep physical barrier designed to hamper the building of smuggling tunnels, continued in earnest, and in disregard of Palestinian protests. And the shooting to death of an Egyptian soldier at the scene only further motivated the Egyptians to complete their part of what Palestinians see as an international pincer movement.
In a sense, they are right. There indeed is some intriguing cooperation at play, except it is not aimed at all Palestinians, only Gaza, and even within that territory – only at its Islamist government. As things have unfolded since Hamas’s electoral victory there four years ago, that regime has emerged as anathema not only to Israel and the West, but also to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Cairo was alarmed by signs of intensified contacts and mutual inspiration between Hamas and the Islamic Brotherhood, the main Islamist opposition in Egypt. Egyptian towns, from Port Said at the Suez Canal’s mouth to the resort town el-Arish in the northern Sinai, are within Gaza’s rocket range. The thought of Gaza’s fundamentalists being in a position to harass Egypt in such a way is intolerable to the Mubarak regime. Hence the redoubled effort to block off smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, as well as the illicit entry of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt.
For Mahmoud Abbas and the PA, Gaza’s fundamentalists constitute an even greater threat. Hamas’s expulsion of the PA’s troops and officials back in 2007, some of whom it massacred, must be somehow reversed from Abbas’ point of view, at least nominally. Otherwise, neither his own population nor the outside world will perceive him as a genuine representative of Gaza’s estimated 1.5 million Palestinians.
Abbas’ game plan in the face of all this remains unclear. On the one hand, the PA remains nominally determined to reassert itself in the Gaza Strip, though no one seems to know what it can or is prepared to do in order to make this happen. On the other hand, the PA is formally collaborating with efforts to reconcile with Hamas. Should such a deal hatch, it will mean not only that the Hamas government will stay put in Gaza, but that it will do so with the PA’s blessing. What seems clear, at least in the eyes of Abbas’ prospective Israeli interlocutors, is that at this stage he remains unequipped to engage and deliver.
For his part, Netanyahu believes that his embrace of the two-state formula should have sufficed for the ignition of a formal discussion, and that his settlement-freeze overture should have altogether created diplomatic momentum, as no previous Israeli government, including those led by the centre-left Labor party, offered a comparable moratorium. Netanyahu’s aides add that Palestinian pronouncements concerning him are consistently negative, ever since Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called Netanyahu’s two-state speech “a hoax.”
It was in this spirit of rigidity that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, clearly the most moderate factor on the Palestinian side of the equation, joined in January a ceremonial torching of products made in Israeli settlements, hardly a way to cultivate goodwill with the conservative coalition he faces in Israel.
A stumbling block in its own right is the saga surrounding Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit. The fate of this young soldier, held in Gaza for the fourth year after having been abducted there from Israel, is being negotiated not with the PA, which does not hold him, but Hamas. If the indirect talks mediated by Germany produce a prisoner exchange deal, the PA would appear irrelevant in the eyes of its own people. This, from the PA’s perspective, is another reason to posture as more militant than it may actually be.
Meanwhile, violence continues to break out occasionally, a reminder that the quiet since last year’s fighting in Gaza can be misleading. In December, terrorists gunned down Rabbi Meir Chai, a father of seven, while he was driving his car outside the West Bank community of Shavei Shomron, west of Nablus. Two days later IDF commandos killed Rabbi Chai’s three murderers in a raid into Nablus.
How they were found so quickly remains unclear. The official version is of course that Israel’s security services tracked them down. However, there was reason to suspect that the PA’s security services, whose policing of the West Bank is increasingly efficient, were at least partly involved in tracking down the three, having announced immediately after the attack that its troops are searching for Rabbi Chai’s killers. Then again, several communications to the media at the time claimed the attack was waged by the al-Aqsa Brigades, which at least nominally answers to the PA.
In any event, back in Gaza the IDF also acted swiftly, killing from the air three Palestinians as they were preparing to fire rockets at Israel, shortly after a previous salvo had landed harmlessly the previous day in several Israeli locations outside the Gaza Strip.
Egypt, Jordan, the PA, Saudi Arabia and the US all remained generally silent while this was happening. Abbas, in fact, wouldn’t even condemn Egypt’s reinforced blockade on its portion of the Gaza Strip’s border, including the enhanced fence, which to many Palestinians is as disagreeable as Israel’s security barrier. Hamas, it turns out, has managed to push into one bed all these Arab governments, along with Israel and the US.
No-one knows to what extent the anti-Hamas coalition’s pressure is coordinated, whether it is seriously engineered to unseat Hamas and if so when, and how. The only thing that is certain at this point is that Hamas’s snatching of Gaza, and the PA’s failure so far to undo it, are weighing down the diplomatic process more than anything else.
Even so, the general assessment in Jerusalem is that eventually Abbas will have to heed Mitchell’s requests, and the talks that were last held with Ehud Olmert’s team will sooner or later resume with Netanyahu’s.
Such talks are likely to initially skirt the thorniest issues of Jerusalem and refugees, and focus instead on the demarcation of the future Israeli-Palestinian border and on the prospect for the declaration of a Palestinian state in temporary borders. Throughout it all, everyone will pretend that Abbas is also speaking in the name of Gaza, though he does so with about as much validity as Taiwan’s claim to speak for China.
Eventually, reality can be expected to come knocking on the negotiators’ door, as there is no indication that Hamas will lay down its arms while the PA negotiates peace in the name of the same people Hamas purports to lead to war. On the contrary, assessments in the IDF are that once progress is made at the talks, Hamas will try to create trouble, possibly aided by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. And when Hamas will attack, Israel will fight back, while the PA, judging by its attitude so far, will stop short of engaging in a civil war to confront Hamas. Instead, Netanyahu’s aides suspect, the PA will pretend to be part of Hamas’ attack, joining in on the diplomatic front – even while formally talking peace with Israel.
It follows that, as things currently stand, peace talks can most likely be expected to resume – and fail.